When people heard I was writing about the Underground Railroad – a 19th-century network of Americans helping slaves to escape – for my novel “The Last Runaway,” here are some of the responses I got:
–You know, my grandmother’s house had a space under the back porch where runaway slaves were hidden.
–When I was a boy I used to play in the woods, where there was an old tunnel that came out into the creek, and slaves hid there on the Underground Railroad. I can show you if you like, though it’s been 60 years since I saw that tunnel.
–There’s a church two miles from my house with an attic where they used to hide slaves. I’ve been in that attic.
–Our town has tunnels running under it that were used to help runaway slaves escape. You should write about them.
–I visited a town near the Canadian border with a barn that had a basement “room” where runaway slaves stayed.
–My aunt owns a house by the Ohio River where they used to put a lantern in the window to signal others on the Underground Railroad that they had runaway slaves who needed help.
–Some friends have one of those houses with a secret closet where they used to hide slaves. Would you like me to call them so you can see it?
People have been unfailingly generous with information and suggestions and a desire to help, and I am grateful and polite. I always thank them. What I never say is that the closet – or tunnel, attic, barn – probably wasn’t used to hide runaways.
Rather like the places where George Washington is reputed to have slept, or the French citizens who joined the Resistance during World War II, the numbers just don’t add up. If they did, George Washington would have been on the road permanently, the Germans would have been driven out of France, and the South would have been drained of slaves.
Instead it is part of the myth-making that has woven the Underground Railroad firmly into the fabric of American history. Sometimes literally: several years ago the bestseller “Hidden in Plain View” by Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard suggested that slaves made quilts with hidden meanings in the symbols; when they hung a certain quilt over the porch railing it meant go to the river, or follow the bears, or go around the mountain. This theory has since been discredited by quilt historians, but the public holds on to it because it seems so possible, and it’s much more fun to imagine those crafty quilters pulling one over on the slave hunters than to accept the reality.
The reality is in the numbers: historians estimate that during the 60 or so years the Underground Railroad was active, perhaps 30,000 slaves managed to escape to the North and Canada. Contrast that with the 3.9 million slave population in 1860 (and that’s not counting all the slaves who lived and died before then), and you begin to understand how small a movement it really was.
The Underground Railroad did have some impact beyond the small number of slaves who used it. Slave owners knew about the network and were paranoid that their “property” might use it. They also had to spend time and money pursuing those who did flee. Abolitionists publicized it as a tangible reaction to slavery. It also gave hope to slaves continuing to live in misery.
We continue the myth-making now by looking at our closets and tunnels and barns differently. Americans need the Underground Railroad to make us feel better. African Americans want to think that their ancestors were not purely victims, but were proactive and courageous in trying to escape. White Americans assuage their continued guilt over the legacy of slavery by imagining that their ancestors would have done the right thing and hidden fugitive slaves, despite the threat of huge fines and imprisonment for doing so.
The reality is that most pre-Civil War Americans, white and black, ducked their heads and just got by, doing what was expected of them. As Germans did during the Nazi era. As most of us still do.
That is what “The Last Runaway” is about. A fugitive slave appears in the farmyard of the heroine one hot August day. What does she do? There is a big gap between principle and reality. The Underground Railroad continues to fill it for many.
The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) thinks Americans exercising our Constitution’s First Amendment right of freedom of speech is “low level terrorism”!
That’s according to a written exam that the DoD uses for its employees’ routine training.
To be engaged in terrorism is a crime, which means the Pentagon thinks it’s a crime, albeit “low level” [smirk], for Americans to exercise our free speech by protesting.
FoxNews had this news more than three years ago, but only now has bloggers picked it up. Here’s the article in its entirety.
From Fellowship of the Minds. So go there and read the rest of this article and so much more.
Everyone should have a .22 pistol and rifle.
For a student of military history, the most astonishing fact about the current international scene is that there isn’t a single conflict in which two uniformed militaries are pitted against each other. The last one was a brief clash in 2008 between Russia and Georgia. In our day, the specter of conventional conflict, which has dominated the imagination of the West since the days of the Greek hoplites, has almost been lifted.
But the world is hardly at peace. Algeria fights hostage-takers at a gas plant. France fights Islamist extremists in Mali. Israel fights Hamas. The U.S. and its allies fight the Taliban in Afghanistan. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad fights rebels seeking to overthrow him. Colombia fights and negotiates with the FARC. Mexico fights drug gangs. And various African countries fight the Lord’s Resistance Army.
These are wars without front lines, without neatly defined starting and end points. They are messy, bloody affairs, in which attackers, typically without uniforms, engage in hit-and-run raids and often target civilians. They are, in short, guerrilla wars, and they are deadly. In Syria alone, more than 60,000 people have died since 2011, according to the United Nations. In Mexico, nearly 50,000 have died in drug violence since 2006. Hundreds of thousands more have perished in Africa’s civil wars. The past decade has also seen unprecedented terrorist attacks, ranging from 9/11 to suicide bombings in Iraq. To understand today’s world, you have to understand guerrillas and the terrorist movements that are their close cousins.
Read it all at the WSJ.